Review: An Elegant Puzzle

An Elegant Puzzle by Will Larson (Goodreads Link)

Without burying the lede, An Elegant Puzzle is one of the best books that I have read on management. Though the book specifically tailors itself to Engineering Management the systems-based approach makes many parts of it applicable to other teams that are focused on complex problems.

Will Larson's background at Yahoo!, Digg, Socialcode, Uber, and now Stripe. Gives you a great view of the experiences that he has cultivated to put this book together. Large companies, Small companies scaling up, Medium companies scaling up extremely fast this array of environments is what he tested these ideas against. Often the ideas are presented as what worked for him and not as a blanket solution to every management problem, or he presents multiple options and highlights his favorite.

Including Sections on:

  1. Organizations

    The basics of team sizing, organization, and productivity. Cast into stone Larson explains what how to manage team growth while keeping productivity high.

  2. Tools

    In the Tools sections, he tackles things like metrics, working with (or being) product teams, documentation, system rewrites, and presenting to senior leadership.

    In your current position, you may not be facing each of the items he covers in the tools section, knowing them before they occur will be of high value for you. Or at least creating a mental pointer to the reference.

  3. Approaches

    These are the ideas that you will see affecting every other aspect of the role you take on as an engineering manager.

    • Work the policy not the exceptions
    • Saying no
    • Your philosophy of management
    • Ways engineering managers get stuck

    I will be rereading these sections regularly until I have my own definitions that have worked for me to refer to instead.

  4. Culture

    There are often no hard facts in designing culture, no single action that works without a doubt at every single company. In this section, Larson sets Opportunity and Membership as two primary elements for designing an inclusive organization, then presents many ideas to be experimented with that he has seen and used in the past.

  5. Career

    This section covers topics from personal career to hiring.

    The hiring funnel laid out in An Elegant Puzzle is

    Identify → Motivate → Evaluate → Close → Onboard → Impact → Promote → Retain

    Normally companies stop after the Close or Onboard step when people accept the offer and join the company. By extending the funnel out you start to get better metrics on retention that are connected to the entire journey of an employee when they were at the company.

    He touches on each of these steps in the funnel with hand-on actions that can be taken immediately in most companies. From cold-sourcing, interviewing internally, creating career ladders, and more.

Though the sections had to land in the book linearly, feel free to mix and match and change the order. Each section and subsection stand on its own likely due to the decade of blogging that Larson did before publishing the book.

If you as a person managing engineers on an individual level or at a larger scale want one reference to use as a playbook this would be the first one to turn to.

P.S. The Hardcover is beautiful and will look great on the shelf.

As will any other book from